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The Devils Struggle With Atmosphere at the Rock

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Over the last few seasons, things have been changing within the Rock. Some changes have been positive, while others have not been. I argue today that some changes the organization have made have really hurt the game day atmosphere and experience at the Rock.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

As you are all aware, things have been changing in the New Jersey Devils organization since Jeff Vanderbeek sold the organization to Joshua Harris and David Blitzer in the summer of 2013. Some of the changes have indeed been positive, such as the 3D lights show and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the retirement of Martin Brodeur, while other changes cannot as of yet really fall into a positive or negative category. Other changes, however, have been negatively met. Now, I already discussed in depth a while back about how I felt the rising prices were a major issue, and I still feel that way today. How can you properly justify raising ticket prices when the team is downright bad, and there is no doubt that the “improvements” in food locations within the arena were in fact a ploy to sharply raise prices, so now it’s $13 for a burger and nearly $10 for a 16oz American beer. To me, these are non-insignificant reasons as to why the Devils were ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference last season in overall attendance, with only a 91.3% average capacity. And those numbers are for declared attendances, not who actually came to the game each night, which is always less than advertised. 91.3% on a suppressed official seating capacity? If you told me the actual mark of people in attendance was closer to 80% capacity on average, I would believe it. And I still have season tickets, I was at a solid 35 games last year, I saw those crowds.

As much as I love watching the Devils, the organization struggles in certain areas with making the experience surrounding the game worth the increased cost. One of the latest changes this season that I feel adds to this idea of the organization getting it backwards with respect to the game day experience is the banning of horns within the arena. In my opinion, this is another clear showing that the organization is strongly over-emphasizing the attempt to make the atmosphere more family friendly. I have no issues with being family friendly by itself, but in the process they are actually achieving the opposite effect. It all starts with the negative side effect of their campaign, which is essentially an attack on fan camaraderie. Being the youngest brother in the market, it is never easy to generate movements that both simultaneously gel and boost the fan base, and we as fans know it. So when we have something that brings us together as fans, we want it and we want to keep it.

This brings me to the banning of the horn. In my opinion, it was done so that the horn rendition of Rock and Roll Part 2, along with the accompanying chant, would disappear. Regardless of whether or not I want the old goal song back, I understood the removal of the song because of the allegations against Gary Glitter; however, removing horns is a clear cut attempt to simply remove the chant. That doesn’t sit well, and over the first few home games the ban clearly has had the opposite effect that the organization desired. Without the horn, people have taken to humming the tune to get the crowd in sync, and the chant is louder than ever. This is an age old human habit: tell people that they cannot do something, and they tend to spit in your face and do it with more fervor than ever before. The goal song chant is the ideal example. Watch a video of a goal during the Stanley Cup winning era. No “you suck”, just “HEY!” Eventually, however, it was added in and heard, but from what I remember as a fan, there was no boasting over how awesome it was or that it was the coolest thing any fan base did in their goal song. It was just a fan camaraderie thing; it brought the fans together in a way that can be really difficult for this fan base to achieve given the little, little brother syndrome.

But now that it’s gone, forget about it. The large majority of fans in attendance will scream it at the top of their lungs because now more than ever, it is a statement. Not a statement that the opposing goaltender sucks (although he may), but a statement to the owners that we won’t sit idly by and let you steal our camaraderie from us. Had the goal song remained, I can easily guarantee you that the chant would not be nearly as loud as it is now, and it would not have nearly the same fervor behind it that it currently does. And it’s not necessarily that specific chant that I am only referring to in this argument, but it is a great example. The organization has so far not only failed in their attempt to remake the game day atmosphere in their own image, but what they have done has backfired on them. Trying to remove something the fans like will usually make it more ingrained within the core of the base, whether with that chant or anything else.

Take another example that is simply irritating in its blatant attempt to prevent fan camaraderie. The Devils now employ a crowd host, a DJ for music, and an organist to kill any dead time in between not only commercials breaks, but after almost every single whistle. And not only do they employ all three at any possible time, but they also do so at extremely high volumes. The music is extremely loud, and while the organ is not quite as loud, it is not necessarily played at a soft volume either. The fans could be in the middle of a chant, not even a “negative” one, but just simply a “let’s go Devils” chant, and the sound will come blasting in as soon as the goalie covers up the puck, totally destroying the chant. And the ironic part is that sometimes they will just play their own version of the chant which is completely out of sync with where the fans are. Why? Why prevent the fans from coming together and doing it as one? Why is that so scary? While I do not have those answers, what I can say is that it absolutely takes away from the game day atmosphere. What’s wrong with simply just having Pete on the organ coming in now and then? That would more than suffice while also giving fans a chance as well.

Furthermore, I personally believe that the attempt to become more family friendly, and in the attempt destroy a non-insignificant connection between Devils fans, is actually hurting their ability to become more family friendly. Let me explain. I do not have children, but I know many friends and fans that do. When they discuss bringing their child to a game, their biggest complaint is not the negative chants. In fact, I have basically never heard fan chanting or camaraderie as being an issue. Instead, parents’ biggest complaints are almost always centered on potential jerks that are overly inebriated and pick fights. Sadly, this is an issue at every single sporting event and will probably always be an issue as long as liquor is served within the arena. If you want to minimize that potential issue, what would probably be the best method? How about filling the seats with more Devils fans instead of settling for a “91.3%” capacity average, when we know a decent amount of those seats are filled by fans wearing jerseys that usually contain something not red. And when those jerseys end up being blue and orange, the odds of quarrels goes up. When the odds of quarrels go up, people stay home.

In the end, it is my belief that the organization’s campaign to become more family friendly may actually have a part in getting fewer fans to games. As I said before, fan-made chants like those that horns bring inspire camaraderie between those in the arena wearing red and black. A positive vibe within the Rock where fans feel more of a connection to each other will draw more fans to games when they hear word of how awesome the environment is. Without that environment, however, less people will feel the desire to head into Newark and deal with the terrible city traffic. Less Devils fans there means more seats available, and more of a chance that those seats are filled with blue and orange jerseys. More blue and orange jerseys means more chances for arguments and less chances that regular Devils fans show, and definitely less chances that parents bring their children, thus preventing a family friendly atmosphere (quick aside: I don’t want to sound like I’m saying it’s all opposing fans’ faults that fights break out. There are plenty of idiotic Devils fans too. But the simple fact that opposing fans are there ups the likelihood of arguments, period).

Therefore, how should the organization go about attempting to improve the environment during home games? Let us be. Let us do the things that bring us together as a fan base, and build off of that camaraderie to generate more fan involvement. If you don’t want to reinstate Rock and Roll Part 2 because of Gary Glitter, at least that is a valid reason. But don’t attempt to kill our chants, and don’t do everything to destroy our camaraderie and impose your own artificially engineered atmosphere through obnoxiously loud music and everything else. By even attempting, you are only achieving the exact affects you don’t want. Attempting to squash what brings your fans together will only do two things: harden the hardcore fans against you, and deter the rest of the fans from attending games. That is not creating a positive atmosphere, but actually ruining it. When 70% of seats on February 25th and March 21st are filled with blue jerseys, and fans wearing red jerseys look to maintain a home ice advantage for the actual home team, you can bet parents will want nothing to do with bringing their kids to the Rock, and fans who simply don’t want to deal with the arguments will stay far away. Devils fans are generally knowledgeable people in terms of hockey and know that this team has been rebuilding, not contending for the Cup. If the Devils want to get people to come see this team, stamping down on things the fans like to do and fans of all ages can get behind will only have the opposite effect, and will hurt the team in both the short and long run.